NINA BOTHA INTERVIEW WITH VIVIAN VAN DER MERWE IN STELLENBOSCH (IN THE ARTIST’S STUDIO). 29th MAY, 2002.
(This interview was intended for publication in April 2004 but following the cancellation of the London exhibition in the wake of the Prof Brendan Neiland RA (Keeper of the RA Schools) controversy in 2003, the interview was not published. In January 2003 Brendan Neiland was dismissed from the Royal Academy amidst a controversy that made front page news in Britain.)
Q: You’ve been invited to do a solo show at the Royal Academy of Arts Schools in London in their summer of 2006. That’s prime-time right in the middle of the London art gallery district. You must be very excited and this surely represents a big achievement in your career. How did this happen?
A: Well yes, I’m very pleased about this. It feels like a vote of confidence, and yes, it does amount to what one might call a career-break. But it’s all still new news and I haven’t really had time to think carefully about what it might mean – but yes I feel very optimistic. In fact that’s an understatement – I feel positively excited.
As to how it happened: A British friend, Sir Richard Rowley, who happened to have served on the Prince of Wales Arts Trust, took an interest in my art after visiting my studio, and showed my Tokara exhibition catalogue to an established British painter. She’s a Royal Academician, but doesn’t have direct or active affiliations with the Academy. I’d mentioned to her, that in light of the new accreditation of creative research at Stellenbosch University, I was planning to work towards an accredited international exhibition. She really liked the work and took the catalogue to Brendan Neiland R.A. (Keeper of the RA Schools) and he in turn seemed impressed with the work and showed it to his senior colleagues there. He contacted me and asked me to submit an exhibition proposal to the RA Schools. My exhibition proposal was well received and Brendan phoned me one Saturday morning to give the green light. The proposal was based on the idea of reciprocal exhibitions, a kind of collaboration between them and us (the RA Schools and the SASOL Museum at the University of Stellenbosch). In July 2006 I’ll be exhibiting at the RA Schools directly after their annual postgraduate exhibition, and shortly afterwards a group of six leading Royal Academicians will be exhibiting at the SASOL Museum. This is a very exciting collaboration and it could also create a ground-breaking precedent for local artists.
Q: Is this your first step towards an international career?
A: Yes, I hope so.
Q: You’ve been working and exhibiting locally for many years now. I tried to find information on you and your work before this interview, but came up with very little. This suggests that you’ve never entered the South African mainstream. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that your art seems kind of invisible. Do you think there are reasons for this?
A: (Laughter) That’s a tough question! Yes I suppose there are reasons. I’ve never been over-ambitious about getting into the arts pages or into the art news. If it happens, that’s okay, but I don’t like being too pushy, and I feel the promotional career-engineering that goes on nowadays often goes too far. It’s as if people focus more on their publicity and careers than on their art; if that makes sense. The occasional crit, review or interview that inevitably follows a solo exhibition is about the most one can expect. I’ve avoided being featured in those art books on South African art that get published every now and then; simply because I think that they’re not responsibly or properly researched and produced. Mostly, they look like product catalogues advertising art. (Laughter) I hope this doesn’t sound condescending…it’s not meant to be.
On a more serious note though: I remember what happened to Stanley Pinker when he won the second Rembrandt South African Biennale in the 1980’s. Suddenly he was in the spotlight in a big way. Everyone was queuing to interview him. Articles appeared everywhere. He became a kind of art celebrity. He even got extensive exposure on national television. In the end that proved to be a very destructive thing. Stanley is an exceptionally brilliant and sensitive painter. I have enormous respect and admiration for him. His contribution to South African art is very significant, in all sorts of ways. But he’s not the kind of artist who was driven by egotistical ambition. I know for a fact that the way in which the media represented Stanley was inaccurate and upset him profoundly. It was very upsetting to witness. It was very destructive. If Stanley wasn’t the unassuming and humble person that he is, that whole episode could easily have had the makings of a classic Faustian tragedy. That taught me something. If art is about the lure of popular acclaim and acknowledgment, then something’s wrong. I think if you’re really desperate to become famous in the arts, then start a band with the right branding, or assassinate Damien Hirst or do something like that. (Laughter)
Q: You trained during a time of political turbulence in South Africa. Those were perhaps the most intense years of the Apartheid Struggle. Yet your work never expressed this. During the mid-1980’s Gavin Younge, one of the most political artists at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, described your art as being “politically apathetic”. And yet you’ve told me that politics are important to you. How does this add up?
A: If you don’t mind, I’ll give you the blunt or short answer. The full answer will be too long. From a very early age I became well informed about the political situation in South Africa. My parents insisted that we be politically informed from the very beginning. Political debate, and often very vigorous argument, was a routine part of daily life at home. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s I was politically aware and often politically active. I remember being pursued by the SAP in the East Rand town of Nigel after engaging in so-called illegal political activities & even being shot at, and being threatened with expulsion from school in Kwazulu Natal, all because of my political activities. Incidentally, Nigel in those years was the official electoral constituency of John Vorster. In hindsight I must confess that some of those activities were naïve and even irresponsible, and happened at a time when I was very young, but some definitely weren’t.
Something I became increasingly convinced of is that a work of art, especially in the South African context, is not the best way of effecting political change, or bringing an end to a powerful government that withstood well orchestrated international sanctions for more than two decades. Nor will such a work of art liberate oppressed people who are illiterate, uneducated, disenfranchised and starving. To assume that white, affluent, English-speaking art-academics made art that brought an end to apartheid is an insult to the intelligence of the millions of black South Africans who sacrificed everything in the struggle for freedom. There’s a kind of paternalistic arrogance behind the assumption that white English arty liberals brought about democracy in South Africa, and that still angers me. That kind of vain, egotistical and misguided philanthropy belongs in nineteenth century British, Belgian and French colonies! The image of these people still haunts me. Imagine living in South Africa, not being able to speak one of the indigenous languages (including Afrikaans) and still claiming to be a spokesperson for the “people”!
There was a fundamental hypocrisy about those bourgeoisie English artists and ideologues. My impression was that they were part-time Marxist revolutionaries, and often very successful capitalist career opportunists. In the 1970’s I was unable to make any sense of such contradictions, and now 30 years later, I remain deeply disturbed by the hypocrisy. But on the lighter side, as Tom Wolfe so eloquently put it, “nothing is more bourgeoisie than being afraid to appear bourgeoisie”.
And perhaps the biggest irony is that history has shown us that the most effective political art, art which has genuinely influenced the masses, came from the greatest tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, etc, etc.
Q: There’s been so much re-writing of South African history and so much re-examining of the struggle years; especially in the cultural context. It seems that you feel aggrieved. Why hasn’t someone exposed these political hypocrisies? And who were these people that you allude to?
A: If I can answer your second question first. I believe it would be professionally inappropriate and unethical of me to identify these artists publicly, and anyway, if I did they’d probably come after me with blunt instruments! And why no one has yet written about, or exposed these things. I know this might sound old-fashioned, but I also believe that with the passage of time these ironies and contradictions will be noted by someone with much more scholarly authority and insight than I have. I think it will require someone with an exceptionally critical and unbiased mind, and exceptional wisdom, to make sense of that era in South African art and culture. Those things happened thirty years ago. But more importantly, we’ve moved on since then, and we’re ten years into the new post-apartheid South Africa. Nowadays there’s a distinct sense of forward-looking, which is very exciting. But yes, I suppose we must be careful of political amnesia; and political nostalgia for that matter. Ultimately, it would be a waste of time and energy to bear grudges against those art-academics who once saw themselves as being culturally and artistically influential and even powerful.
Q: And now 30 years later, given the lessons you’ve learnt from all of this, what advice would you give a young art student who is sitting exactly where you were sitting back then?
A: My advice would be to work with total dedication and belief in your art. Provided you have the talent. Don’t pretend, ever. I think the artworld is overloaded with pretence and curatorial mannerism. I know “integrity” is a dangerous and controversial word to use, especially in art discourse, but yes, that’s exactly what I would say: Work with integrity, and the rest will follow of its own accord. If you’re genuinely talented, and you’re working with honesty and self-critical integrity, then you probably don’t need to plot and plan your career. In fact if you’re really serious about making art, then you probably won’t have too much time for that other stuff. But be patient.
One of the current trends or fashions in the artworld that really worries me is this obsession with careerism. It’s an Americanism, of the worst possible kind. It encourages young artists to engage with a perceived market, to think of art in terms of a target audience in the context of a specific cultural currency or milieu. The motto here seems to be, “Curate thyself or perish!” I suspect that one of the biggest challenges facing the new generation of young artists is that of keeping critical balance. In an Americanised youth culture where aspirational values are increasingly defined by obsessions with celebrity, media acclaim and unhinged consumerism, it is very challenging not to want to climb onto the new curatorial band-wagon. One of the lessons I’ve taken from art history is that the journalistic or mediated impression of “what’s in vogue and even why it’s in vogue” is often very unreliable. It’s like CNN or Time Magazine. They tell us, with apparent authority, what is significant or important in the world at any given moment. I’m not suggesting some weird conspiracy theory here. All I’m saying is that this kind of journalistic bathos, in a much more sophisticated and eloquent form, seems to be a big factor in the politics of the current young artworld.
So really, the simple answer is: work with critical honesty and integrity, and the rest should follow, eventually. And, don’t believe everything you read in Artforum! (Laughter)
Q: Are you cynical about contemporary art?
A: No, I’m not cynical about contemporary art, or any art for that matter. But yes, I am critical. I believe, as an artist, it is my first and abiding responsibility to be absolutely critical, always, and about all art. I’ve always said that as an artist, criticism, like charity, begins at home. I don’t think you can suspend your critical intelligence simply because you’re looking at your own art. If you’re really serious about art, the idea of being partially or selectively critical strikes me as being very incongruous. In fact, it strikes me as being absurd. So, no, I’m not cynical about contemporary art, but critical, yes, definitely.
Q: Art and politics today? How does it differ? Can art make a difference now?
Globalisation, mass-consumerism, AIDS, environmental issues, that’s much more important now. I think the economic and cultural forces that define society today are very different from what they were for the previous generation. How art fits into this I’m not sure. But maybe it’s the same old question: yes, perhaps a few super-wealthy pop stars can hold benefit concerts to raise funds. But whether a solitary visual artist working in a medium, that’s not suited to mass-mediation, will effect meaningful social change through making artworks; I don’t know. It’s doubtful. Fluxus tried and had limited success. The new Anarchists, green activists, anti-globalisation lobbyists, and other groups are trying to challenge the status quo, also with some success, but somehow visual art doesn’t seem to feature prominently as their weapon of choice.
Q: But don’t you feel that art must in some way contribute to society?
Yes, there’s no doubt that art has always, and hopefully always will, contribute to society. Okay maybe some art doesn’t. But it’s not a simplistic contribution. I’m convinced that no matter how small, or how indirect, or how discreetly, any work of art that affirms something, emotionally, aesthetically, even inexplicably, no matter how immeasurable, is contributing something to civilization. Art is not a science or a technology. Therefore it’s not possible to measure the social benefits or returns that society gains from art. That’s where designers probably have the edge; they give things that are physically demonstrable and measurable to society. Whenever I hear that people who’ve lived with my paintings saying that, in some way, their lives have been aesthetically or visually enhanced by my work, I suppose I feel that I’ve contributed something; albeit something that cannot be measured physically or materially. When someone lives with a work of art for many years and consistently gains increasing pleasure from contemplating that artwork, then yes, something is being contributed. Or looking at it the other way around: If, for example, the entire contents of the world’s greatest art museums were eliminated tomorrow, there would surely be a profound sense of loss. I think that extent of that sense of loss would be directly proportional to the scale of the contribution which that art had made to society prior to its destruction.
But ultimately I’m no expert on hierarchies of social and cultural importance, and don’t really know how these things work.
Q: And your own art? How does your art relate to South African realities? In what way do you see yourself as a South African artist?
Since the mid-1970’s, after I became aware of the futility of trying to use painting as a political or ideological tool, I increasingly focused on things that were much more important to me, artistically I mean. I’m deeply aware of being South African. I feel deeply rooted in this society, this place and this culture. I’ve only been out of Africa once, long ago, for a brief period of three months. My short stay in England and Europe in 1980 gave me the opportunity to see the art I had always dreamt of seeing. I cannot deny my own Dutch, Irish and German cultural and artistic ancestry. In many respects, walking into the great art collections of Europe felt like a homecoming. I felt privileged. At last I was able to see, touch, hear, even smell, the things that had defined so much of what I believe in as an artist. Those three months were an intense and profound affirmation of so many things! Yes, it definitely was a sense of homecoming. But not in a colonialist way. Definitely not.
And yet, during those three months, in the northern winter, I gradually became aware of something ironical, almost paradoxical: I’d never more felt at home, but at the same time I’d never felt more alienated. I was overcome by a sense of urban, social cultural claustrophobia. I found places like London and Europe saturated with history, culture and no matter which way you looked, you saw evidence of economic enterprise, you saw history, people, people and more people, crowding together, apparently hell-bent on sustaining a very specific cultural and economic system. I think it was around that time that the term “Euro-pessimism” was coined. I sometimes felt as if I was trapped in a large over-productive beehive that had become dangerously over-populated. There’s something very depressing, Kafka-like, about those millions and millions of anonymous grey-white faces punctually and obediently squashed into the London Underground coaches each morning. Perhaps it’s a remarkable testimony to highly organised socio-economic structures, but there’s also a dehumanising aspect to it. It lacks spirit. It lacks imagination. It felt very unnatural to me. No matter how adaptable, I don’t think people were designed to live like that.
Once or twice when I managed to escape into the countryside, to find some quiet nature, I was astounded at how cultivated and measured the European landscape is, and I don’t mean neat and tidy. I sensed that no matter where you went, no matter how far beyond city limits you’d go, if you scraped even a few centimetres beneath the surface, you’d find a Roman potshard, an ancient foundation, a bit of shrapnel from the Second World War, or some or other archaeological evidence of European culture. I also sensed that every square centimetre of this landscape “belonged” to someone, and was recorded somewhere in deeds office, or maybe plotted on a central computer database in Brussels or somewhere. It seemed as if there was not even one square centimetre of Europe that had not been invaded, that had not been tilled or trodden upon, that had not been measured, and that did not belong to someone. That’s when I realised that Europe was all about Culture with a capital C. Real nature had long since been traded for culture; and not cheaply either. And that’s precisely why I felt alienated. The overwhelming realisation was that Europe is all about people and culture. You can barely see the spaces between all the people. It came down to a nature/culture dichotomy. Here, in South Africa, and southern Africa, I’ve always been aware of nature before culture. You easily find yourself moving through spaces where there are no people, where there have never even been people. There are vast tracts of the landscape which bear no traces of human beings or culture. It was this nature that I started missing terribly during those three months in Europe. It was this nature that I’d grown up in, that had nurtured my sensibility from birth, and that I’d developed a deep and instinctive affinity for. In Europe I felt an increasingly urgent need to get back home. Hence, the paradox.
So, how my own art relates to South African realities? I don’t know exactly. What I do know for sure, is that seeing the best of Byzantine art, Dutch/Flemish painting, and European painting in general, confirmed everything that I’d always hoped art to be. South African culture has produced very little, if anything, that remotely equals some of the art I saw there. That’s why I’m planning to visit Europe as soon as possible again. Maybe my own art is a kind of European-South African hybrid or something. I honestly don’t know. Maybe these categories are less distinct nowadays. Maybe I was born in exile, but somehow I don’t think so, because in Europe I feel so alienated. It’s become very fashionable to talk about being a world-citizen, but I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that either. In fact that whole idea really worries me. When less than .0001% of the world’s population are in a position where they can claim to be these jet-propelled “world-citizens”, this suggests a massive imbalance. Something’s happening at the expense more than 99% of the world’s population. But now I’m going off your question. Personally and artistically I don’t see myself as a global citizen.
I suppose my work’s informed equally by many different cultural experiences and traditions.
Q: And finally, how do you see your future in South African art?
In much the same way as I see the present I guess. While I am mentally and physically able to meet the creative challenges that continue to evolve in my art, I’ll just keep working at it. One of the nicest things about painting is that it’s not one of those careers that come with a sell-by date. While many professions assume that someone who is 40 is over the hill, in some professional sports its 23 years old, in something like painting there’s none of those worries. In fact if you look at artists’ biographies, there seems to be evidence that some of the greatest achievements happen well into artist’s 70’s and even 80’s. So maybe, that’s one of fringe benefits of my career. I’ve chosen an ageism-free vocation. (Laughter) Certainly at this stage of the game I feel as if I’m only beginning to engage with some really important things. I know that my best work has yet to happen. And so it should, if I’ve been learning along the way. Long-term, I’d like to downscale my teaching and focus wholly on painting. If the London exhibition goes well, that might set some interesting processes in motion. I’ll just keep doing what I do best, and that’s painting. I find painting more than profoundly satisfying, and challenging enough. No need to add overt or covert agendas. There’s no ideological or conceptual master-plan behind my work. If in twenty years time I can look back knowing that my work progressed significantly in my established or later career, I’ll be very happy. That’s my biggest aim. And how it fits into South African art, someone else will have to try and figure that out. I’m not driven by those kinds of ambitions.